Beer Nirvana

Every year at the end of September or the start of October, the Brewers Association (BA) holds the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver. Called the world’s largest craft beer fest, this year’s blowout had 800 breweries serving 4,000 different beers to more than 62,000 guests. The three-day, four-session festival isn’t just a beer lovers’ wonderland; it’s a prestigious competition. More than 2,400 breweries from across the land sent 8,495 samples to vie for a bronze, silver or gold GABF medal.

The fest brings brewers and beer-lovers from all over for a week of tasting, fellowship and partying. From the Colorado Convention Center’s balcony, I clearly saw that GABF is a powerhouse event for downtown Denver. The streets were full of revelers in T-shirts with names/logos of favorite breweries. Folks wore necklaces strung with pretzels, jerky and even pizza. Restaurants were full before and after a session and bars and taprooms were overflowing. Volunteers from all over our great land moved among attendees as celebrity brewers manned booths, chatting with fellow brewers and media.

The GABF had a humble beginning. The first one was in 1982 at Boulder’s Harvest Hotel, with only 22 brewers and about 800 guests. It was Charlie Papazian’s idea; he wrote The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, well-regarded by home brewers; it’s practically their bible.

That idea grew exponentially within the industry, really taking off when it moved to Denver in 1984. By 1991, the festival was at Denver Merchandise Mart, with 150 breweries and 7,000-plus attendees. Later, it all relocated to Currigan Hall; now it’s finally landed at the Colorado Convention Center.

This year saw three large themed areas, the usual tasting booths, a bigger Meet the Brewer area, Buffalo Wild Wings Sports Bar and Jameson Caskmates Barrel-Aged Beer Garden.

At Meet the Brewer, 165 brewers from places like The Boston Beer Company, Rogue Ales and Left Hand Brewing answered questions and mingled. It was quite popular.

Jameson Caskmates spot hosted 17 small, independent breweries with beer aged in Jameson whiskey barrels. Florida’s Cigar City Brewing presented Beoir Le Caife, a brown ale brewed with lactose and aged Jameson Barrel-rested coffees. The process gave it subtle whiskey notes, so it had an Irish coffee-ish feel. The taste? Strong coffee with cream and a bit of sugar. A small, beloved New York brewery, Captain Lawrence Brewing Company, presented an imperial red ale, wowing tasters with a deep malty, whiskey-forward flavor, smooth and drinkable.

Buffalo Wild Wings Sports Bar treated folks to beers made just for GABF. The biggest draw was a panel of three visionary brewery owners–Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada Brewing Company), Kim Jordan (New Belgium Brewing) and Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head).

Outside the festival, several breweries had events at local taprooms, bars and restaurants. One coveted invitation: the annual Boston Beer Company (aka Sam Adams ) brunch, where Brewers Association CEO Bob Pease spoke of the need for drinkers to be able to distinguish true craft beer from mass-produced beer, brewed by multinational conglomerates, aping the taste and quality of craft beer. He told of the association’s new ad campaign running on TV and radio, espousing the joys of craft beer, using the hashtag #seektheseal, a nod to the BA’s recent adoption of a seal craft brewers can put on canned or bottled brews, on their social media, websites and advertising materials. The seal identifies the brand as one belonging to a craft brewer outside the dominion of big beer. Sam Adam’s owner, founder and front man Jim Koch expounded on Pease’s point.

“They’re all good,” he said, “but there is better. Craft beer is the antidote to [the beer equivalent of] fast food. There’s slow beer and craft beer. We make slow beer. We need to be very clear and differentiate ourselves from the industrial brewers.”

How does the Great American Beer Festival make the distinction? It recently banned major breweries from the festival, and held a competition recognizing the artisanal, the craft nature of small breweries.

Beers were judged in 102 categories, including the first-time category of hazy or juicy IPA–a style characterized by a near-opaque appearance and somewhat mellowed bitterness, popularized several years ago by New England brewers. Of the 306 medals awarded, seven went to Florida breweries. Alas, none were given to Main & Six Brewing Company, a local Downtown brewery which submitted three brews for judging.

“It’s the hardest competition,” said Main & Six owner Dennis Espinosa. “We will try again next year.”

Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing Company won two medals; for its pale ale Guayabera, and its brown porter Maduro. Other Sunshine State breweries scoring medals include Gainesville’s First Magnitude, which was recognized for Drift, an English-style mild ale, and Tampa’s Copperpoint Brewing Company, which won an award for Coco for Coxness, a chocolate beer named for brewmaster/owner Matt Cox.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the festival is the wide range of volunteers and attendees. Some volunteers travel great distances for the event, even using a week of vacation to be part of the festivities.

“I’ve been volunteering for 27 years,” said one such gleeful soul. “I just love beer and the camaraderie that comes with it.”

People from the region were definitely in the majority, but folks from Florida, Washington and every state in between came to the timeless affair. Similarly, attendees ranged from young to very old and every age and stage of life betwixt. There was even a couple from Denver who brought their marriage license and signed it in the New Belgium booth.

This year’s Great American Beer Festival may be but a fond memory now, but rest assured that plans for 2019 are already in the works. For many beer lovers who attended, GABF 2018 was the trip of a lifetime. For craft brewers, it was a celebration of their beers and confirmation of their hard work and effort. And, for the breweries that won medals, it was a validation of their desire to be the best beer makers they can be.